Bill would extend insurance for injured high school athletes, like Rocky Clark

Published: Monday, March 25, 2013 10:00 a.m. CDT

As a former NFL linebacker, Democratic state Sen. Napoleon Harris knows the risks of playing such a hard-hitting sport. As a former high school athlete, he also knows life can change at any time and that life-altering injuries are just one down away.

Now inspired by the case of the late quadriplegic Rasul "Rocky" Clark, Harris has proposed legislation he hopes will ensure that high school athletes with catastrophic injuries will have better medical care.

Clark died last year after his own health insurance coverage for his high school football-related injury ran out of money. Paralyzed from the neck down, Clark suffered an injury in a 2000 football game while playing as a running back for Blue Island's Eisenhower High School.

Community High School District 218 provided Rocky with catastrophic injury insurance that provided top-notch health care coverage and treatment.

But in 2010, he was informed his $5 million plan had been used up and the district would no longer cover his medical expenses. He died a year later, and his case garnered national attention.

Under the bill by Harris, whose represents the south suburbs, public and private high schools would be required to supply up to $7.5 million or 15 years of catastrophic insurance coverage for athletes. The bill won unanimous approval last week in the Senate Insurance Committee.

Harris, a former Northwestern University football star, played in the NFL for eight seasons with the Oakland Raiders, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs.

Disastrous injuries may be rare but, as Harris said, it could have happened to him or anyone else.

While disabled, Clark championed for better health care for other student athletes who suffered similar devastating injuries.

At the state Capitol, Annette Clark, Rocky's mother, sobbed as she told her son's story last week during a Senate hearing.

She detailed how she and Rocky were caught off guard when his insurance ran out. The way she learned was through a letter.

Her quest to cover Rocky's care included mortgaging her house, testifying she had to "do what I had to do" to ensure Rocky lived for as long as he could.

"My whole thing is I don't want another parent to have to go through what I've been through and what I'm going through," she told lawmakers.

Many quadriplegics die within 10 years of their injury because of lung or kidney failure, but Clark surpassed those odds.

Under Harris' bill, any student participating in events sanctioned by the Illinois High School Association would have sufficient insurance in case of a life-altering injury.

"I thought it was imperative that no one's family should go through what Mrs. Clark went through as far as not having the resources to take care of her child," Harris said.

A similar bill was defeated last week in the House Elementary and Secondary Committee, where opponents were leery about imposing more costs on schools.

Democratic Rep. Will Davis of Homewood, who sponsored the bill that failed, said he hopes Harris, of Flossmoor, could give the issue enough momentum to improve the odds of passage in the House if the Harris bill prevails in the Senate.

The same House committee turned down another football-related bill. That legislation, sponsored by Rep. Carol Sente, D-Vernon Hills, would have limited full-contact practice in youth football.

The bill, whose supporters include former Chicago Bears linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer, sought to eliminate some of the practices because even the NFL does not allow full-contact practice during its offseason.

Hillenmeyer cut his NFL career short because he suffered from multiple concussions.

A disappointed Sente said she will "redouble" her efforts to raise awareness about the potential for brain damage in youth football.

"Given the potential for permanent brain damage from even non-concussive hits," Sente said, "we have a responsibility to make sure that football is as safe as possible for our children without changing the integrity of the sport."

raguerrero2@tribune.com

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©2013 the Chicago Tribune

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